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Perth Modern School

Hasluck, Paul 1977, Mucking About: An Autobiography, MUP, chapter 7: 67-73.

Chapter 7: Secondary School

I attended Perth Modern School from 1918 to 1922. Only scholarship winners were admitted. The course was of five years. Three years in the lower school ended with the taking of a public examination called the Junior. In the upper school we were divided into general, science and commerce, and at the end of a further two years took a public examination called the Leaving. This examination also led to matriculation for those who went on to university.

The school was run on the traditional lines of a great public school. We had school colours and were expected to wear straw deckers with a coloured hat band in summer and school caps in winter. There were prefects and fags and a school cadet corps. A strong sense of the honour of the school was inculcated and this included an expectation of tidiness in appearance and good manners. The masters and mistresses all wore academic gowns and we raised our caps to them and addressed them as ‘sir’ or ‘miss’. There was no corporal punishment. The ultimate sanction, rarely invoked, was to be sent to the head to report, which meant confessing one’s offence to him. There was reputed to be a risk of being expelled for grave offences or lack of diligence but there was nothing public about it. On about three occasions in five years I remember a boy simply failing to reappear at school.

Unlike most schools in the State Education Department, the headmaster at that time could pick his own staff and a position on the staff of Perth Modern School was regarded professionally as an honour to be coveted, so, broadly speaking, we had competent teachers who specialized in their own subjects and who took part in general school activities out of the classroom as well as in it. There was a good deal of student activity in running their


own societies and sporting teams. My own distinctions were modest as captain of the second eighteen, president of the debating society, library prefect and a corporal in the cadets. The only sporting awards I ever won were for swimming. I was not one of the bright boys in class.

As might be expected from a school with such terms of entry, the bright boys were very bright, perhaps the best in the State. Its students went on to make major contributions to the life of Western Australia and Australia. The roll includes parliamentarians, judges, scholars of repute, scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, economists, university professors and others of eminence in various callings.

Despite this great tale of success, I am myself unsure whether it was a good school for me. I was very proud to be there. If I had not gone there, I would not have had any secondary education at all. What it failed to do for me was to give me guidance. It was probably taken for granted by the masters that everyone who went there knew what he wanted to be and do. I didn’t. I knew in a general way that education was good for me and that if I got a good education I would do something good, but what I was to do I did not know. My parents’ ambitions for me and their dreams about me would have been satisfied if I had gone off as a missionary to China or in some other way had dedicated myself to the service of Christ. They could not guide me in matters of curriculum. I just drifted through the school without guidance, neglecting subjects which did not attract me and responding eagerly to those I liked or which were taught in a way that awakened my interest. Most of the staff, unless I judge them unfairly, took more interest in the potential winners of university exhibitions than in the ones who got less than average marks. At the end of five years of drifting through school and having some fun and some boredom, I was startled by a history mistress who asked me what I was going to do. When I said I would look for a job, she exclaimed, ‘But I thought you would be sure to go to the university. You are university material.’ I wondered what she meant. No one had told me about the university or how to get there.

So I went through Modern School, doing well at English and history, neglecting my French and Latin, doing very badly at most other subjects and wondering occasionally what was the end of being educated. The chief value I had from the school was from its manual training course, which gave me a good knowledge of woodwork and the handling of tools. I also read a lot. The school was almost unique in those days in having a fairly extensive library.


What I enjoyed most about the school was the companionship. I had a number of close mates and revelled in their company. I was popular and had some trivial fame for a ready tongue, good swimming and rough football and some skill at bowling, handicapped by total failure as a batsman.

Although I was in a co-educational school, I took little interest in the girls. Few of us did. There were a few ladies’ men but most of us just ignored the girls or at most exchanged a look if we momentarily shared amusement or admiration at something that happened. Mostly they ignored us as fully as we ignored them. We were taught manners. Boys had to open doors for girls, stand aside to let them pass first and, at the end of a mixed class, allow them to leave the classroom before we did. There was also a code of not embarrassing them either by letting them see us go to a lavatory or by looking in their direction if they might be attending to any personal need even it were as harmless as smoothing the wrinkle in a stocking. There were strict ideas about what subjects could be talked about and what words used in the presence of girls. We had to stand up straight and never talk to a lady or a girl with our hands in our pockets.

Those were days of decorum. Boys and girls went swimming in separate enclosures. The girls could watch the boys’ swimming and athletics sports but the girls had their swimming and athletics in private. Even when boys cheered on our team at a hockey match, nothing was ever revealed except knee-length voluminous black bloomers under a hockey girl’s skirt. Tennis girls wore skirts that came half way down the calves. The tunic uniform of girls came well below the knees and the shirt blouse buttoned at the neck. In the upper school, at the end of the year, we had mixed picnics. I cannot remember anything more exciting than playing twos-and-threes and coming home by boat on the river in the moonlight all singing songs together and then decorously departing on our several tramway routes in different directions.

I left Perth Modern School with many pleasant memories of good friends, of games, of idling around and talking and enjoying a few escapades together. I was popular and everyone seemed to like me and I suppose I was rather puppyish, wagging the tail eagerly and taking it for granted that everyone wanted to have a frolic with me and pat me on the head. This sort of easy, careless, fun-loving, friendly schoolboy popularity with mates, with whom one has no special rivalry, no touch of envy or jealousy and a natural assumption of friendship, makes for happy schooldays but is a bad preparation for life. A kick in the ribs, when it comes, gives the eager puppy the anguish of surprise and bewilderment as well as the physical pain. I just did not


understand the world when, without ambition and with scant experience, I plunged into it. The school, under Joe Parsons, trained us strictly in obedience, respect for our seniors, a sense of duty and doing our best. Looking back, I often wonder how I could possibly have reached the age of nearly eighteen years without being aware of anything about the ways of the world outside a school.

I cannot make up my mind whether schooling is to be regarded as good or bad if it leaves a youth so unready for the world. I do feel some criticism about my education at Perth Modern School because of the lack of guidance and direction it gave to me. 1 went through school without keeping any steady course and ended without any ideas about what I wanted to do or of what I had an aptitude for doing. I did a lot of diverse reading on anything that caught my attention and scamped most of my lessons. I got good marks in English and history simply because I had a very good memory for what I read and had some facility in giving written answers at examinations. Latin was taught in much the same way as algebra; its words were presented as little different from algebraic symbols and its grammar was taught like algebraic formulae. The French language was presented as an unspoken language mainly made up of tricky sentences in the subjunctive mood.

Probably throughout my education, both primary and secondary, I had been inattentive in the classroom and simply enjoyed being at school, as at a pleasant place with other boys, a nice smell of chalk and ink and books, and a great opportunity for day-dreaming on sunny days.

From my early primary school education I remember gratefully Mrs Brown, who first interested me in looking at the world around me—the insects, the snakes, the tadpoles and the birds—and in picking up odd bits of this and that and putting them in a ‘museum’. I remember gratefully ‘Daddy’ Martin who made history seem exciting. I give devout thanks that from, the age of seven to eleven I was taught in a one-room one-teacher little school in the bush and I remember gratefully ‘George Newman’, who first made me aware that there are several different ways of saying the same thing and that some ways are better than others, and who made me aware, too, that there was a world of sculptors and painters and composers of music.*

* I put his name in quotation marks because I doubt if it was his real name. He went off to the war among the first to go and was killed on Gallipoli after winning a Military Cross. When 1 looked in the paper and said I could not find Mr Newman’s name, my father said: ‘He also had another name' but said no more. He was English, handsome and knew a lot about books without knowing much about teaching. Once when he was showing us some pictures of works of art he paused at a picture of ‘Physical Energy’ by G. F. Watts and made some remark to the effect that he was related to him.


I remember simply Francis James O’Leary because of that brief period of affection and pride he gave to me when he helped me to win a scholarship. I remember Charles Sharp, Mary Crowther and Hugh Laing at the Perth Modern School for expanding my appreciation of English literature and bringing me to feel that the beauty of a verse is no less admirable than some feat of skill with a bat and ball. They added zest to my reading. Especially, I am grateful for the manual training periods in the school workshop where John Gardam taught me how to handle tools correctly and with some skill and gave me some feeling for the texture of wood. I am glad that Modern School had so many books in the library. For the rest, I think I was badly taught, wasted a lot of time, and was always being interrupted or turned away from subjects in which I was interested to subjects that were dull and unnecessary and had to be taken for no apparent reason other than that they were in the school curriculum.

I was a rather idle boy and probably a disappointing one to most of my teachers. My parents, who thought me to be bright, puzzled over my term reports in which recurred so often the phrases ‘should try harder’ or ‘is capable of doing better work’. I knew I had been day-dreaming. I was reported to the head for inattention and once, more seriously, for misbehaviour after a bit of skylarking in which I was on the dais 'giving the class an imitation of ‘Beery’ Ellison, the physics master, at the moment when ‘Beery’ himself entered the room. I reported to the head’s office feeling pretty sick. When I had given an account of why I had been sent to his office, there was a long and rather sad sort of silence. The head looked at me. He wrote something in a book and simply said in a tired way, ‘The trouble with you, Hasluck, is that you won’t grow up.’ That was all. I crept away to return to class and to apologize to Mr Ellison. I was a sad little puppy with his tail between his legs for about half an hour and a model of correct and dutiful behaviour for about a fortnight.

There was one period when, about the age of fifteen or sixteen, I thought I would go to sea. I used to go down to Fremantle Harbour now and then and wander along the wharves looking at the ships and perhaps perch on some rocks of the North Mole while fishing and watch a departing vessel slide by. It was romantic to dream of being a deck boy on one of them. I saw an advertisement to join the navy. They were recruiting boys. The navy office in Cliff Street looked spic and span with a rating on


guard at the door, eyes straight ahead, bayonet gleaming. Several times I walked backwards and forwards in front of it. Then one day I went in telling myself there was no harm in asking. I must have got my advertisements mixed up. The petty officer on duty snubbed me badly. We talked at cross purposes, he becoming more and more like a drill instructor and I becoming more and more tongue-tied. I crept away. By the next weekend, I had lost all interest in the sea. I am very grateful to that petty officer for snubbing me and am very glad that I did not go to sea.

Of education in general—and the comment covers my university experience as well as primary and secondary schools—I would remark that while schools and schoolteachers do something in training young men and women in particular skills, in much the same way as sheepdogs are trained, most of us are really self-educated.

When I approached the end of my schooldays I had no idea what I wanted to do. One day at school, a classmate said, ‘You are good at English and like writing. You might become a journalist.’ I had no idea about how one became a journalist or what a journalist did but started to learn to write shorthand as a sideline. If journalism attracted me, it was as a stepping-stone to being an author. Somehow in the course of my schooldays my early ambition to become a lawyer had gone down the drain. I have a faint recollection that I thought I was not clever enough to be a lawyer. In any case in those days the only way to become a lawyer in Perth was to become an articled clerk, and a solicitor usually asked for a premium of £400 or £500 before he would take an articled clerk, and until such time as an articled clerk had passed two successive examinations conducted by something called the Barristers Board—an ordeal that could only be overcome in a period of four years—he was only paid something like five shillings a week. Since I remember these details rather exactly, I must have made some inquiries on my own on how to become a lawyer and I must have abandoned that hope because it would have been impossible for my parents to find a premium of £400 and continue to keep me for another four years, while the prospect of obtaining a partnership or even good salaried employment after admission was rather dim in those days for persons who had no great influence or talent.

About the only professional opportunity for a youth from a low-income family and with a mediocre record in passing examinations was to become a schoolteacher. That was what many of them did for lack of anything better. Teaching never attracted me. Indeed the idea of being a teacher rather repelled me.

So, although I knew very little about what journalism meant, the idea of being a journalist started to sprout. Luck fell my way


without much striving on my part. In Perth in those days the openings for young journalists were probably only one or two a year. One day my father met old Horace Stirling and mentioned that I wanted to be a journalist, and Horace said that he had a nephew, Jack Stirling, who was a sub-editor on the West Australian and he would tell him about me. He did. And then I went to see Jack Stirling and he passed me on to the chief of staff, Charles Frost, and then I seemed to be forgotten until one day, about two months before the Leaving examination, I was called in and offered a job to work for five hours a night from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. as a sort of dogsbody in the office doing what I later learnt was called ‘the bulsh’. I accepted eagerly. Later I found that the reason for the offer was an emergency that had arisen when the youth who had previously been doing ’the bulsh’ had gone off his head and had been put in the lunatic asylum.

So for the last two months of my secondary schooldays, when I should have been studying hard to pass the Leaving examination, I used to go to school in the daytime and work in the newspaper office six nights a week for £1 a week. ‘Doing the bulsh’ meant writing sundry little paragraphs, sub-editing the weather reports, making a digest of advertisements and running a lot of messages. I did it diligently and after four months was taken on as a cadet journalist at thirty shillings a week at the end of January 1923.

I do not remember that I had any strong ambitions about being a journalist. My main concern was to get a job to relieve my parents of the burden of keeping me. On their low cash income they had had a hard struggle to support me at school so long. I did not have to struggle or compete with anyone to get into journalism. I just slipped into it.

Although I did not realize it at the time, this was a turning-point in my life. If I had found a job in some other trade or industry, the course of my life might have been wholly different. A newspaper office changed my life by giving me an experience and an opportunity for self-education of a kind that I would not have found anywhere else. My work changed my outlook, diverted my attention and shaped my habits. With my family background, I could not possibly have learnt as much as I did about the ways of the world or met so great a diversity of people if I had not gone into newspaper work. I was an eager, shy and innocent youth when I slipped into a newspaper job by the lucky chance of another youth’s madness.

Garry Gillard | New: 27 August, 2019 | Now: 20 April, 2022